It has been two years since the United States pulled out of Afghanistan. The chaotic departure from Kabul reminded many of the ignominious 1975 collapse of Saigon. Critics contends the withdrawal emboldened rivals, especially Russia and China, and encouraged smaller nations and their leaders to recalculate policies and politics. The hasty exit highlighted that the post-World War II, American-shaped global order was over. Today, as the contours of international politics continue to evolve, questions proliferate about America’s global status and mission.
Indeed, the term “superpower” – at least as understood in the Cold War context – no longer remains operative. The U.S. is still at the top of the international pecking order based on economic weight, cultural influence, military might, foreign aid, logistical capabilities, and network of security and trade alliances. However, policy priorities shifted, new challenges emerged, and Washington is having difficulty articulating and selling its strategy, denting credibility.
The Biden Administration has focused on repairing and expanding the U.S. alliance system. The Russian invasion of Ukraine gave NATO a new sense of purpose, and new members. Today, the 74-year-old alliance is bankrolling and arming Ukraine, with Washington being Kiev’s most generous supporter. The war’s outcome remains in the balance, but it will not end, as Moscow envisioned, with the swift collapse of Volodymyr Zelensky’s government. President Biden has prioritized strengthening America’s position in the Indo-Pacific, especially ties to the other Quad nations of Australia, Japan, and India, as well as South Korea. Washington has made commitments to Taiwan’s security as well, and helped birth the AUKUS alliance. The Inflation Reduction Act, which is actuality is a massive climate bill, could very well be a global game changer in combatting climate change and pushing the nation – and world – into a greener future.
But problems mount on all fronts. In Latin America, democracy is threatened by left and right-wing populism. Drug gangs have been emboldened, and human rights are under strain. U.S.-Mexican relations are more tense than they’ve been in years. In the Middle East, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, and Yemen are failed states. Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria, all face severe economic challenges, while Tunisia and even Israel struggle with self-inflicted internal political crises. Africa has witnessed a spate of coups, and faces the consequences of climate change and food insecurity. In Asia, China’s economic growth, military buildup, and aggressive diplomatic outreach (especially under the Brick and Road Initiative), draws the most attention. But there are other critical concerns, such as the instability of nuclear-armed Pakistan, where floods have affected more than 33 million people. The recent arrest of Imran Khan continues a disturbing trend of political leaders going from high office to prison.
Climate change, extreme weather, and pressure on the water-energy-food security nexus suggest greater government instability and human suffering. Questions abound, and are not unique to one specific region, about migration, health, the rule of law, human rights, the status of women, and religious freedom.
Meanwhile, the volatile American domestic political scene is damaging international prestige. Since 2016, it seems election season is continuous. Great or small, every policy decision seems to be a zero-sum game. In the states, partisan control means winner take all. Compare California and Michigan, on the one hand, to Texas and Florida – “blue” Democratic and “red” Republican states are moving in very different directions. At the federal level, passing critical legislation like appropriations bills and raising the debt limit is exceedingly difficult. Partisan intransigence complicates even dealing with routing matters like military promotions and ambassadorial appointments. In this atmosphere, it is likely Washington’s policies will likely shift abruptly when power changes hands. This destabilizes global politics, and in so doing undermines American claims to superpower status. To be a superpower, one must not only lead, but have others believe it will act swiftly and more-or-less predictably.
The U.S. has gone through moments of turmoil and uncertainty before. The end of the Nixon Administration occurred as America pulled back from Southeast Asia. The Ford and Carter Administrations struggled mightily to stabilize the economy – especially inflation and high gas prices. America’s standing was debated, and policy failures such as Iran suggested its power was waning. What makes today different from that earlier period is the there is on overarching global paradigm – conflict between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. – that defines roles, moderates behavior, and maintains relative order. The world is in a period of transition, and Washington must adapt to new realities.
Global Perspectives & International Initiatives looks forward to an exciting year of events and projects that we hope will shed light on some of the major challenges confronting the world and U.S. – from the Caribbean to Latin American to Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. We hope students, faculty and members of the Central Florida community will continue to participate in our activities and support our engagement of international partners in education, the arts, politics, and security.
David Dumke is the Executive Director of the University of Central Florida Office of Global Perspectives & International Initiatives